How to Identify the Stone Tools of Native Americans

by Phil Whitmer, studioD

Native American stone tools are durable artifacts, surviving from the end of the last glacial period, about 12,500 years ago.Stone age technology and tools saw everyday use until the arrival of the European colonists in the 1500s. Flint knapping techniques of chipping and flaking the brittle stone evolved from the earliest crude tools into sophisticated and finely manufactured artifacts. Pecking and grinding of hard granite provided long-lasting tools and stone implements. In 2011, stone artifacts from 15,500 years ago were discovered in an archaeological dig near Austin, Texas -- "the oldest credible archaeological site in North America," according to archaeologist Michael R. Waters of Texas A&M; University.

Determine if your suspected Native American stone tool is a man-made object or a natural geological rock formation. Look at it under a microscope for signs of being worked. Search for evidence of pecking, sanding or knapping. Examine artifacts found at known Native American habitation and hunting sites. Compare them with the tools you wish to identify. Familiarize yourself with local collections to observe the different types of indigenous stone tools and how they differ from local natural rocks.

Keep an accurate record of the locations of where your artifacts were recovered. Use a GPS to take pinpoint readings and write the information in a notebook. Each geological area was occupied by many different cultures over thousands of years. Each culture had their own tradition of making stone tools. Learn the different types and forms of tools made by the cultures from different time periods in your area. Differentiate between the different designs and forms of each culture.

Identify the material the tool is made from. Many tools called arrowheads are actually knives and spear tips. These artifacts are most often made of flint or chert, less often from obsidian, jasper, quartzite or colored agate. Seek help from books, the Internet or local geologists with identifying minerals. Know the difference between different colored and textured varieties of the same type of stone. Distinguish between the types of slate commonly fashioned into tools.

Study the shape or morphology of the tool as the primary indicator of its classification. Look for crudely chipped scrapers and hand choppers that may not look like tools. Compare the differences between full-grooved and 3/4 grooved axes. Determine if the tool was hafted or hand held. Look for a finely sanded cutting bit on the sharp edges of axes and celts. Consult with local artifact hunters, archaeologists and museums with help in the identification of type and classification of your stone tool.

Identify projectile points and bladed tools by their overall outline and the shape of the base. Each culture living in a particular time period had constraints on the shape of their tools, as if they were copied from a template. Pay attention to the base and classify it as articulate, with pointed ears, basal-notched, corner- or side-notched. Stemmed points with rounded "beaver tail" bases are indicative of the Adena culture. Define the point's silhouette as triangular, leaf-shaped or lanceolate. Compare the shapes with those in an identification guide.

Tip

  • Do lots of research and talk to knowledgeable people before attempting to identify Native American stone tools.

Warning

  • Observe the stone tool in detail for clues to its identification. Many types are similar and easily confused.

Items you will need

  • Native American stone tools
  • GPS unit
  • Notebook
  • Microscope
  • Stone and mineral guide book
  • Arrowhead identification guide

About the Author

Working from an 1870 farmhouse in Indiana, Phil Whitmer has been writing since 1972. With articles in college papers, journals and the "South Bend Tribune," his writing also includes science writing and museum publications. Whitmer holds a Bachelor of Arts in fine arts from the University of Notre Dame.

Photo Credits

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